The Lady's Almanack

Djuna Barnes, Brilliant and Damaged

By John Strausbaugh

Djuna Barnes arrived in Greenwich Village in 1915, when it was in full flower as America's Left Bank. She didn't come to be a bohemian, however. She already came from a family of bohemians, and according to biographer Phillip Herring it had left her permanently damaged.

Her paternal grandmother, Zadel, was a Victorian free-thinker, free-lover, abolitionist, suffragist, spirit medium, writer of stories and verse for Harper's, and, during several years she lived in London, a friend of both Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar, and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl. Djuna's father, Wald, seems to have embodied the worst attributes of the bohemian. He was a shiftless ne'er-do-well who sponged off Zadel until she died (when he was fifty), and used his presumption of superiority to bourgeois morality as a rationale for immoral behavior, possibly including incest and certainly including child abuse.

Born in 1892, Djuna was raised in a log cabin in Cornwall-on-Hudson and on a farm in Huntington, Long Island, in a household crowded with her grandmother, her mother Elizabeth, her four siblings, her father's live-in lover Fanny, and their several children. Zadel paid the bills. As nonconformists among conservative country folk, the Barneses held themselves apart and mostly held the kids out of school, surrounding them with literature, art and music but neglecting to teach them basics like spelling and arithmetic. Zadel doted on Djuna and encouraged her to write and draw.

Both Zadel and Wald goaded the children to throw off bourgeois sexual restraints. For fifteen years Djuna and Zadel slept in the same bed, and their bizarrely bawdy letters, which Djuna saved, suggest they engaged in sexual fondling and play. Some feminist scholars would later attempt to interpret this activity, if in fact it happened, as a women's revolt against Wald's patriarchal hegemony, rather than incest and child molestation. Wald certainly gave his daughter good reason to be revolted. Djuna later told and wrote conflicting stories about her first heterosexual encounter at the age of sixteen: her father initiated her entry to full womanhood either by raping her himself or bringing in a neighbor to do it. Whichever man it was, the experience left her with rage and humiliation that marked the rest of her life. When Djuna was eighteen, Zadel compounded the girl's sexual confusion by pushing her into the arms of Fanny's fifty-two-year-old brother.

When Wald's two families could no longer stand living under one roof, he kept Fanny and her children and banished Elizabeth and hers. They moved to the Bronx in 1912, and from there Djuna escaped to the Village, taking a room in one of the boarding houses on Washington Square South. "In those days Greenwich Village was to the Bronxite just another name for hell and the devil," she later wrote, a place that would "get a girl by her back hair and sling her into damnation." She cut a striking figure, sometimes dressing all in black, with a black veil. She was extremely bright and talented, with a knack for the killingly clever bon mot reminiscent of one of her role models, Oscar Wilde, and a luxuriously decadent style of drawing heavily influenced by another, Aubrey Beardsley.

But her abusive and isolated upbringing had left its scars and skewed her dealings with the world. She flung herself at New York and Greenwich Village with reckless bravado, yet held herself aloof at the same time. Her haughty attitude and sharp tongue fascinated and amused some Villagers, annoyed others; she had a gift for raising eyebrows and ires. As Zadel had hoped, she took up journalism, writing articles and drawing illustrations for almost every newspaper and magazine in the city, including Harper's. She wrote about boxers and dentists and Chinatown and the circus, interviewed Flo Ziegfeld and Mabel Dodge and Enrico Caruso. Yet she always felt journalism, and her readers, were beneath her, and many of her articles wore sardonic sneers. She wrote several tourists' guides to Greenwich Village that were prickly with a sarcasm that mocked both the rubes and the Village.

The apex of scorn may have been an article she wrote for Vanity Fair, "What Is Good Form In Dying? In Which a Dozen Dainty Deaths Are Suggested for Daring Debutantes." Djuna confessed that it was the sort of cutting wit that's a front for deep insecurity and depression. As she wrote, "my upper lip... would persist in an attempt to curl, probably because I wanted to cry and wouldn't. I felt cold because I wanted so dreadfully to feel warm..."

Along the way she hurled herself into passionate romances with men and women that usually ended with her abandoned, enraged, and devastated. Guido Bruno, the Village's Barnum, published a slim volume of lesbian verses she wrote and illustrated, The Book of Repulsive Women. She later disavowed it, and got flinty with anyone who asked if she was gay, straight or bi. She once quipped that if she had sex with a horse it wouldn't make her a horse. Late in life, when she enjoyed playing the cranky old lady, she would perplex those who'd come to revere her as a lesbian heroine by snapping her low opinions of homosexuality male and female.

The Village's Provincetown Players produced a handful of her odd and unsettling one-acts like Three from the Earth, in which a trio of rough country brothers ("three columns of flesh without one of the five senses") confront a haughty "lady of leisure" about her love affair with their father, who has recently committed suicide. As with all of her writing, it's easy to see autobiographical references embedded in its brief and jangling depiction of dysfunctional family life. Twenty years later, Barnes would write of the Playhouse, "Our destiny made us speak before we understood, write before we should and produce before we were able..."

Along with many others, she left the Village for Paris in 1921. She held herself aloof and apart there, too, never learning much French in almost a decade there and making friends only among other English-speakers: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Mina Loy, Kay Boyle, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim was a Medici of Modernism, surrounding herself with artists and writers to whom she doled out just enough favors and funding to keep them around, if grumbling. Barnes did plenty of the latter, exasperating her benefactress on numerous occasions.

She wrote her first novel in Paris, the thinly veiled story of a supremely dysfunctional family, Ryder. It made the best-seller lists back home. She also created another illustrated book about her lesbian friends, The Ladies Almanack, banned in the US. She met the love of her life, the sculptor Thelma Ellen Wood, who eventually not only broke her heart but led her down a path into alcoholism. Her novel Nightwood, on which her literary reputation rests almost entirely now, revolves, in its highly elliptical way, around the end of their affair. It was published in London in 1936 and in New York the following year, and while many of the great writers of her time professed to admire it, many also confessed to being confused by it.

Barnes remained in France and England until 1939. "By the late 1930s," Herring writes, "Djuna Barnes was caught in a spiral downward into alcoholism, self-deception, and continual illness... Soon she would give up even the pretense of writing or painting or being sociable and just drink alone in her room." She was prone to the usual drunkard's list of illnesses, accidental injuries, and delusional outbursts. After a failed suicide attempt in 1939, Peggy Guggenheim in effect had her kidnapped and thrown on a boat for New York, where friends and family tossed her into a sanitarium for a drying-out cure that didn't stick. She returned to the Village and would spend the bulk of the 1940s battling alcohol, falling down, getting sick, writing little.

She lived her last forty-two years in a tiny one-room apartment at 5 Patchin Place, a muse of former servants' housing the bohemians had colonized. E. E. Cummings was across the way in number 4. For a brief time she read manuscripts for Henry Holt & Company, but her notes were so viciously negative they fired her. By 1950, after a mighty struggle, she had conquered the alcoholism, but never regained her health and was still so accident prone that Cummings would periodically throw open his window and yell across to her, "Are you still alive, Djuna?"

She worked on a number of poems she drafted and redrafted endlessly. A couple were published in The New Yorker, and others became the illustrated bestiary Creatures in an Alphabet, published in 1982. She managed to complete one last, extremely difficult and obscure work, The Antiphon, a verse play that's like the bastard offspring of a Jacobean tragedy ("Would you propose a beggared silk-worm draw/ From out her haggard poke so brave a silk/ Could card a paragon?") and one of O'Neill's bleak family dramas. Like most of her work, it's a bitter rebuke of her family, thinly disguised.

In her last years she was a famous recluse, elusive as a ghost and fantastically cranky. Worshippers who made their way from around the world into Patchin Place, or recognized the dark old woman with the cane shuffling down Village streets, were often rebuffed with a gruffness leavened with wit. When she did let someone into her life in these waning years she revealed a warm and craving heart. She slipped away from it all in 1982, the year Creatures in an Alphabet appeared.

Published March 6th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.